Kahane on Mozart, March 23 at the Alex Theater in Glendale
Saturday’s “Kahane on Mozart” program showcased all the nuance and detail that make the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra so enjoyable to watch. Bookended by Mozart (Piano Concerto in E-flat major, K.449 and the “Linz” Symphony No. 36), the program introduced two new pieces—a 2013 work for marimba and strings by Gabriella Smith, and the world premiere of James Newton Howard’s Concerto for Cello & Orchestra. In several ways, the program achieved an aesthetic balance by placing new and old works in opposition to each other, but it was the clever through lines that connected them which made the program so effective.
On the surface, the 230-some-odd years between the works delineated a clear line: Mozart’s careful, partitioned musical architecture highlighted thematic hierarchy and development on a grand scale, where the modern works foregrounded texture in single, shorter, and more seamless trajectories. The landmarks conveyed with cadences and tonal shifts in the Mozart were instead signified with radical changes of technique for the marimba and strings in the Smith and Newton Howard. More than anything, though the balancing and juxtaposition of contrasts which defined the classical form were responded to with a static and meditative emotional purity that evolved patiently in the modern pieces. Based on the works’ respective lengths and styles, the program rightfully navigated a musical journey that—while briefly exploring new pathways—ultimately departed and concluded at the heart of the tradition.
But beneath the surface were a number of connecting fabrics between the works. The soloist-driven nature of piano, cello, and marimba concertos all provided a similar, direct point of attention for the audience. The back-and-forth and layering in Newton Howard’s cello concerto suggested an appreciation of Mozart’s own conversational approach to the concerto. Perhaps most striking was the contemplative, textural exploration suggested in the inner “Andantino” of Mozart’s piano concerto, which evolved into shimmering, cinematic backgrounds in the Newton Howard, and then again into the lively, buzzing undulations in Smith’s Riprap. Having arrived at Smith’s assertive, cohesive textures of orchestration, a return to Mozart with the “Linz” symphony provided a natural sense of conclusion, employing the chamber orchestra, now, as truly a single instrument while also returning to Mozart’s bold gestural language and clear sense of form.
The performances themselves were clean, detailed, and respectful of each work’s nuanced language. Kahane performed and conducted the Mozart concerto from the piano, and while it provided some challenges—there was a lack of clarity in the piano sound (due to its positioning) and some disagreement between Kahane and the orchestra on the tempo of the third movement—it also provided for a few stunning moments of interaction, including a particularly moving performance of the concerto’s slow, inner movement. Andrew Shulman provided a sensitive performance of Newton Howard’s cello concerto, and while his sound occasionally had to battle the orchestration, his deep, rich tone and expressiveness commanded attention throughout, right through the breathtaking, dying murmurs of the work’s ending. Finally, Gabriella Smith’s Riprap balanced a modern aesthetic sensibility with a deep understanding of performative gesture: the music had a sense of studio composition, crossfading repeating, minimalist swaths, but the drama of the performance techniques (for both the marimba and the strings) made the performance impossible to take your eyes off of. Percussionist Wade Culbreath was perfectly tuned-in to this balanced approach by Smith, providing a virtuosic, physical performance while reinforcing the work’s sense of imperceptibly emerging and submerging textures.
The Mozart symphony was what you would expect for LACO: Clean, tight, pushing and pulling in all the right places. But it was also strongly highlighted by its context; the contemporary works demonstrated how challenging it really is to organize and develop a large-scale musical work, to present clear and concise musical ideas, to marry style with substance. Each composer took their own approach, but concluding with Symphony No.36 was an apt reminder of just how difficult it is to sound easy. For their part, LACO continues to make it appear effortless.